COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH/AP) – Four days after the calculated killings of eight people in rural Ohio, authorities have yet to announce a motive, let alone any suspects, but a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office confirmed Monday that authorities found marijuana at some of the crime scenes, including a grow-house where hundreds of plants were being cultivated.
The victims – all members of an extended family – were fatally shot in the head, including the young mother of a newborn baby sleeping beside her early Friday morning. That baby, another infant and a toddler were spared.
Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office told NBC 4 that investigators found indoor marijuana growing operations.
Tierney also confirmed Monday that investigators found chickens and equipment and apparatus consistent with breeding chickens for cockfighting.
When specifically asked if the murders have ties to a Mexican drug cartel, Tierney said, “We are considering all possible leads.”
Rhoden family victims in Pike County homicide
All eight autopsies have been completed, the Attorney General’s office said Monday. Authorities have released no details about a motive, but the office did confirm Monday that one of the victims had received a threat via Facebook.
The victims were remembered on Monday as loyal and caring people as more than a dozen counselors, clergy and psychologists arrived at the local high school to help friends and neighbors handle their grief.
Dana Rhoden, who was killed along with her three children, her ex-husband, and three other relatives, “always wanted what was best for her kids,” Scioto Valley Local School District Superintendent Todd Burkitt said Monday.
The youngest victim, Christopher Rhoden Jr., was a 16-year-old freshman at Piketon High School, which has just 530 students.
“He was the first one that if he thought that someone wasn’t being treated fairly or felt like someone wasn’t being treated appropriately, he would speak up about it,” Burkitt said.
The teen’s siblings – 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden and 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden – also had attended the school.
Residents of Pike County say the murders have changed their outlook.
“It makes you feel really different,” said Katherine Gibson, a Pike County native. “We’ve never really thought about locking doors and watching cars out the window and I does shake you up a little bit.”
Jeff Ruby, a Cincinnati-area businessman offered a $25,000 reward for details leading to those responsible. “If that can lead to the capture and conviction of the person responsible, it will be the best money I ever spent,” Ruby told NBC4.
Ruby says the fact that investigators found evidence of marijuana at the scene doesn’t change his commitment to the reward money. “Do we still want those people on the loose?” Ruby asked aloud. “Would you want them on the loose? We want to get them in jail and et them the death penalty and whether those people were growing marijuana or not – it doesn’t matter.”
At a news conference on Sunday, Attorney General Mike DeWine called the killings “a sophisticated operation,” and Pike County Sheriff Charles Reader said citizens should assume that those responsible are armed and dangerous.
Authorities have yet to describe a motive, but extensive marijuana-growing operations are not uncommon in sparsely rural southern Ohio, an economically distressed corner of Appalachia where secluded properties aren’t far from major population centers. Two of the victims’ homes are within walking distance of each other along a remote, winding road leading into wooded hills from a rural highway.
Piketon – about 60 miles south of Columbus and 90 miles east of Cincinnati – is in Pike County, which is home to just 28,000 people and has an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, considerably higher than Ohio’s rate of 5.1. A main employer is a shuttered Cold War-era uranium plant whose cleanup provides hundreds of local jobs.
More than 22,000 marijuana plants were seized in Pike County in 2010, and while authorities made no arrests, they said they found two abandoned camps where Mexican nationals apparently stayed. In 2012, another 1,200 plants were seized in Pike County in an operation connected to a Mexican drug cartel, the Attorney General’s office said. Seizures continued in 2013 and 2014 in the county.
The victims have been identified as 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; their cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden; and 20-year-old Hannah Gilley, whose 6-month old son with “Frankie” was unharmed.
DeWine said the state’s crime lab was looking at 18 pieces of evidence from a DNA and ballistic standpoint, and five search warrants have been executed. More than 100 tips have been given to investigators.